Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Purim Miracles across the Centuries

Over millennia, scores of minor or “mini Purims” have been uniquely observed in different Jewish communities to commemorate the anniversary of a miraculous deliverance from the brink of destruction.

In different corners of the world, fasts were observed on the anniversary of these days, followed by a festive meal and a megillah leining that recounted the details of the near-disaster and sudden salvation. Special piyutim and prayers of thanksgiving were recited and often business was suspended for the day.

Many of the unique “megillahs” documenting these miracles have survived to the present day.  They offer fascinating glimpses into how the Hashgacha orchestrated acts of rescue from Jew-hating tyrants and rabble rousers in the darkness of the Middle Ages. They tell of times when a Jewish community was spared from disaster by fire or earthquake in the most unlikely ways.

They also reveal the bottomless gratitude in Jewish hearts to the One Above for His kindness and guiding hand.

 

Purim of Saragossa

One of the most famous of the Jewish people’s “mini Purims” unfolded in Saragossa, on the island of Sicily (not to be confused with Saragossa, Spain), where a Jewish presence dates back to the times of ancient Rome.

According to Megillas Saragossa, in the late 1300s, when the king walked through the Jewish marketplace, the Jews would parade with their most resplendent Torah cases while offering blessings in his honor and dancing in the streets. The practice continued for 22 years.

One year, some rabbonim in the city ruled that the custom of using the sifrei Torah to accord honor to a mortal king was a slight to kovod haTorah. It was decided that the practice of honoring the king should continue but with empty Torah cases.

Megillas Saragossa relates that a Jewish convert to Christianity named Marcus, who had risen to prominence in the court of the Sicilian king, became aware of this ruling and massered on the community. He informed the king that the Jews’ show of respect was fake and the Torah cases were empty.

Outraged that his Jewish subjects would mock him with such a deception, the king announced his intention to visit the Jewish marketplace the very next morning. There he could catch the Jews in the act of parading the streets with hollow Torah cases. If the allegations were in fact found to be true, the punishment would be severe: the men would be executed, women and children would be taken as slaves, and the shuls would be burned.

According to Megillas Saragossa, that night, each of rabbonim of the 12 local shuls had the same dream in which a saintly figure instructed him to return the sifrei Torah to their cases. When the king arrived the next day and ordered his men to open up the beautiful cases, he found the scrolls inside.

[Some quote a tradition that the mysterious figure who visited the rabbonim in their dreams was Eliyohu Hanovi. Others say the king’s “sting operation” to uncover the ruse of empty Torah cases was leaked to one of the community leaders who in turn alerted all the heads of the shuls.]

Like Haman in the Purim story, Marcus was hanged on a tree for having lied to the king, and the Jews were saved. The king even granted them special tax breaks for three years.

The day of the king’s visit, the 17th of Shevat, was established as Purim Saragossa, with the extraordinary events preserved in Hebrew on scrolls modeled on Megillas Esther.

In the century following these events, the Jews of Saragossa, along with other communities in Sicily, came under the control of Spain. In 1492, Sicilian Jews were subject to the Spanish edict of expulsion like the rest of Spanish Jewry. Some five thousand Jews were forced to flee Saragossa.

The expelled Jews wandered east, settling mainly in the Ottoman territories. The Sicilian Purim was celebrated into the 20th century by several Jewish communities in Greece and Turkey, including Ioannina, Istanbul, Thessaloniki, and Smyrna.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust and the mass migrations of North African and Middle Eastern Jewish communities to Israel after 1948, most “mini Purims,” including Purim Saragossa, ceased to be practiced.     —Megillas Saragosa, from Special Collections, Leeds University Library in Great Britain

 

Frankfurter Purim

The Sfas Emes siddur, first published in 1799 in Rodelheim, Germany by Rabbi Wolf Heidenheim, mentions the special nusach traditions of Frankfurt. Included in the list of days when one omits tachanun, there is a notation that “In Frankfurt-am-Main, tachanun is omitted on Frankfurter Purim on the 20th of Adar.”

Frankfurter Purim, also called Purim Vintz, celebrates a local miracle that took place in 1614, six days after Purim. A criminal rabble rouser named Vincent Fettmilch instigated an uprising against Emperor Matthias, demanding lower taxes, as well as lower interest rates on Jewish loans and a reduced quota for Jews residing in Frankfurt.

When the emperor ignored or rejected these demands, Fettmilch incited a violent mob to ransack the Jewish quarter of Frankfurt. The hooligans burned down homes and businesses. They attacked and plundered, driving the entire Jewish population out of the city.

Two years later, in February of 1616, the tables were turned. Emperor Matthias had strengthened his reign over the region and, recalling the earlier challenges to his throne, exacted his revenge. Vincent Fettmilch and five accomplices were sentenced to death and hanged, and the Jews were allowed to safely return to the city.

The proximity of the villains’ hanging to Purim encouraged the community to celebrate these events as a Divine redemption, with special songs and a lengthy account of the story titled “Megillas Vintz.”

 

Purim of Cairo

In another extraordinary rescue of a community on the brink of being massacred, in 1524, Aḥmed Shaiṭan Pasha, governor of Egypt which was then under Ottoman rule, was involved in a revolt against the Turkish Sultan Sulaiman which spilled over to the Jewish community.

In addition to proclaiming himself sultan over Egypt, the pasha seized as hostages twelve of the leading Jews of Cairo, including the chief rabbi, David ibn Abi Zimra, said to be the teacher of the Ari Hakadosh.

Shaitan proclaimed his intent to launch a massacre of the Jews of Cairo and to expel all who survived unless a huge ransom was paid.

The pasha was detested by many in his own court for his greediness and cruelty. While leaving the bathhouse the day the ransom was due, he was assassinated by senior members of his court. During the transition of power, a general amnesty was issued, the imprisoned Jews were released and the threat against the community annulled.

The rabbonim instituted the “Purim of Cairo” to mark this miraculous deliverance. A special megillah was written in Hebrew recounting the threat to the community and how the decree of death and expulsion was averted at the last moment.

Purim Cairo was celebrated on the 28th of Adar until the last half-century when most of the Jewish population of Egypt settled in Israel.

 

Purim of Shiraz

On the second of Cheshvan, the Jews of Shiraz in Persia observe a centuries-old tradition known as Mo’ed Ḳaṭan. They abstain from work, exchange visits with friends and greet one another with “Mo’ed Ḳaṭan.”

This tradition is brought down in an ancient Jewish-Persian manuscript written in the 13th or 14th century, about a shochet named Abu al-Ḥasan, who was alleged to have sold non-kosher meat to fellow Jews on erev Rosh Hashanah.

The community was in an uproar and Abu al-Hasan realized his days there were numbered. He reacted by publicly embracing Islam, and accusing the Jews of his community of heinous crimes. The Muslims exploited the situation to deliver an ultimatum to the Jews of Shiraz: conversion to Islam or death.

To save their lives, almost all submitted to conversion.

One month afterward, Abu al-Ḥasan died mysteriously on the second of Cheshvan. A note was reportedly found in his pocket in Hebrew declaring that the Jews were innocent of the charges brought against them, and the allegations were all false.

In an unheard of departure from usual custom, the Muslim authorities permitted the “converts” to return to Judaism. To commemorate this spectacular deliverance, the leaders of the community instituted the Purim of Mo’ed Ḳaṭan.

 

Pulver Purim (Powder Purim)

This mini Purim was established by Avraham Danzig of Vilna in 1804, following a catastrophic accident when a powder ammunition magazine exploded. Thirty-one lives were lost and many houses blown up, including that of Rav Avrohom Danzig, author of Chayei Odom.

Rav Danzig and his family were all severely wounded but miraculously escaped death. The rov instituted the custom in his family on fasting on the 15th of Kislev, followed by a seudah in the evening in commemoration of the accident. Tzedaka is distributed to the poor and certain chapters of Tehillim are chanted to the Al-mighty for the miraculous deliverance from almost certain death.

 

Purim of Ancona

The history of Ancona, Italy, in the 16th century is replete with church-instigated persecutions and blood libels against its Jewish citizens, as well as burnings at the stake and expulsions. Pope Pius IV and V were especially vicious.

The 17th century offered some relief to the Jews of Ancona at certain times when anti-Jewish legislation was temporarily eased.

On the 21st of Teves, (Dec. 29, 1690), a severe earthquake struck Ancona, causing massive destruction but sparing the Jewish quarter.  In gratitude, the Jews of Ancona celebrated a mini Purim on the 21st of Ṭeves. The feast is preceded by a fast the day before, and special prayers are ordained for both days.

 

Purim Furhang (Curtain Purim)

A “mini Purim” that played out in Prague over 400 years ago shines a light on how Jews in various corners of the world faced random acts of cruelty by tyrannical rulers as an almost everyday occurrence.

In 1623, costly damask curtains were stolen from the palace of the governor, Prince Lichtenstein, during his absence from Prague. It was assumed by palace officials that they had been sold for profit in town. An order was issued by authorities in all the shuls of Prague that anyone having the stolen goods in his possession should turn them over to the gabbai.

A Jew, Joseph ben Yekusiel, delivered the curtains to Hanoch ben Moshe Altschul who served as the gabbai of the Meisel shul in Prague, explaining that he had bought them from two soldiers.

Count Rudolph Waldstein, who was in charge of local government affairs in the prince’s absence, demanded that the buyer’s identity be revealed and that he be turned over for punishment. Hanoch Altschul refused to disclose the name. He was thrown into prison and an order issued for his execution on the gallows the next day.

To save his life, Altschul broke his silence, disclosing the name of the buyer and explaining that the man had innocently bought the palace curtains not knowing they were stolen goods, and had immediately surrendered them once he became aware of it.

Altschul was released but his explanation fell on deaf ears. Joseph ben Yekusiel was seized and sentenced to the gallows in his stead. No attempt was made by the Count to find the soldiers from whom he had purchased the stolen curtains.

When all efforts of influential Jews to save Joseph ben Yekusiel proved futile, the community turned to prominent Christians and city officials. It is likely that quite a bit of money changed hands as the Jews pleaded for these individuals to intervene. The effort succeeded and Count Waldstein released the prisoner on the condition that the congregation pay a fine of 10,000 florins—an enormous sum.

In order to humiliate the Jews, the count ordered that this money, divided into ten equal parts, be paid in silver coins and carried to city hall in expensive linen bags by ten prominent Jews, escorted by soldiers in a city-wide spectacle.

Altschul recorded the event in a scroll entitled Megillas Purim Hakela’im (The Scroll of Purim of the Curtains). In his tzavaah, he instructed his descendants to read the scroll annually “on the 22nd of Teves,” the day he was liberated, and to celebrate the miracle of his redemption by “feasting and giving thanks to G-d for his salvation.”

 

Purim Povidl (Plum Jam)

In 1731, in the city of Jung-Bunzlau in Bohemia (today’s Czechoslovakia), David Brandeis, a Jew who ran a grocery store, sold some plum jam to the daughter of a non-Jewish bookbinder who then died within a few days.

Allegations of murder began to roil the non-Jewish community. The mayor of the city shut down the store and had Brandeis, his wife and son imprisoned on the charge of selling poisonous food to Christians, a crime that carried a death sentence.

Influential Jews in the city prevailed upon a court of appeals at Prague to open an investigation into the bookbinder’s death. To the surprise of the municipal authorities, it was found that he had died of advanced tuberculosis, at which point the charges against Brandeis were dropped.

Brandeis recorded the event in a Hebrew scroll which he called Shir haMa’alos l’Dovid, describing the frightening series of events that had begun on the 4th of Shevat and ended with his exoneration on the 10th of Adar. He called upon all his descendants to “to read this scroll every year on the tenth of Adar and to make that day a day of rejoicing and gladness.”

According to a history of the period by Moritz Steinschneider, the Purim Povidl festival was still observed by the descendants of David Brandeis in the nineteenth century.

Purim of Rhodes

In 1840, a group of Greeks on the island of Rhodes conspired with the governor against the Jews who were competing with them in the sponge trade. The Greeks fabricated the disappearance of a child and fomented a blood libel against the Jews. The child was later found alive and well but until he surfaced, many prominent Jews of Rhodes had been imprisoned and tortured.

Sultan Abd al-Majid deposed the governor of Rhodes, and gave the Jews a royal document declaring that the accusation of ritual murder was false. The granting of the sultan’s document coincided with Purim on the 14th of Adar, a source of immense joy to the Jews who saw it a sign of G-d’s loving, guiding Hand.

For many decades afterward, Purim was celebrated as a double festival at Rhodes, with special piyyutim and tefillos commemorating the double salvation.

***

Megilas Eivah, Story of Hatred

The first of Adar is celebrated by the descendants of Rav Yomtov Lipman Heller (1579-1654), as a day of thanksgiving to G-d for his liberation and reinstatement, after his imprisonment in Vienna in 1629.

This dramatic story of hatred and perfidy, and of Rav Lipman Heller’s ultimate liberation and triumph, is told in the rov’s own Megillas Eivah.

Rav Yomtov Lipman Heller was an illustrious rabbinical figure known as the Tosfos Yomtov after his commentary on the Mishnah by that name. He also authored important commentaries on the Rosh and many other rabbinical works.

A talmid of the Maharal and the Kli Yakar of Prague, Rav Lipman Heller was appointed to serve as a dayan in that city. He subsequently filled a number of prestigious rabbinical positions, including rabbi of Nikolsburg and of Vienna. In 1627 he was called to Prague to serve as the city’s chief rabbi.

That position earned him powerful enemies when he ran afoul of Prague’s rich citizens by trying to lighten the burden imposed on the poor by the crushing “crown taxes.” In an effort to be fair, the rov redistributed the tax obligations so that families were assessed according to their means. This meant the wealthy members of the community would carry more of the burden than their struggling neighbors.

His enemies informed on him to the government, alleging that the rov had defamed Christianity in his works Ma’adanei Melech and Lechem Chamudos. In 1629, the Tosfos Yom Tov was arrested, tried and sentenced to death.

The Jewish communities of Bohemia, led by Rav Lipman Heller’s son and financier Jacob Bassevi, managed to commute the rov’s sentence from execution to a heavy fine, on condition that he resign his public position as Prague’s chief rabbi and leave the country.

It took the Tosfos Yom Tov two years to raise the funds for the payment of the first installment that secured his release. His enemies, however, were relentless. They obtained an imperial decision that he could not officiate as rabbi in any town of the empire, leaving him destitute. It took many years for the Tosfos Yom Tov to pay off the balance of the fine.

The rov decreed a fast day for all his descendants on the anniversary of his imprisonment. In Megillas Eivah, the Story of Hatred, he outlines his own bitter experience at the hands of implacable enemies who incredibly, were fellow Jews.

In the winter of 1644, he settled in Krakow after being appointed chief rabbi of the city. He also joined the author of the Pnei Yehoshua as rosh yeshiva of the Yeshiva of Krakow, one of the Jewish world’s most esteemed Torah positions at that time.

It was only at this juncture, 15 years after his imprisonment, that the rov felt he could fully celebrate his release and restoration. He chose Rosh Chodesh Adar, the day that he officially assumed the rabbinate of Krakow, as a day of thanksgiving to G-d.

At the end of Megillas Eivah, the Tosfos Yom Tov records his wish that the first day of Adar be designated “henceforth and forevermore, for myself, my descendants, my sons and daughters-in-law, a day of festivity, of drink and of merriment.”

 

 

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